Definition and Examples of Subject-Auxiliary Inversion

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms


In English grammar, subject-auxiliary inversion is the movement of an auxiliary verb to a position in front of the subject of a main clause. Also called subject-operator inversion.

The location of a finite auxiliary (or helping verb) to the left of the subject is called sentence-initial position.

Subject-auxiliary inversion occurs commonly (but not exclusively) in the formation of yes-no questions (e.g., You are tiredAre you tired?) and wh-questions (Jim is cooking → What is Jim cooking?). See Examples and Observations, below.

Examples and Observations

  • "'Could you stand here, please?'
    "'Have you taken your bath as I prescribed it, Professor David?'
    "'Yes, I have done everything you told me.'"
    (Janette Turner, The Ivory Swing. University of Queensland Press, 1991)
  • "'I'll be coming up there with Pam. What's the weather like? Is it raining?'
    "'It's snowing and it's cold.'"
    (Chester Aaron, Catch Calico! Dutton, 1979)
  • "When the boy had taken the picture Jacob said, 'Excuse me.' The boy gave him a clear green-eyed look. 'Can you speak English?'
    "The boy nodded. 'Some.'
    "Would you mind if I took a photo of you beside this grave?'"
    (Aidan Chambers, Postcards From No Man's Land. Random House, 1999)
  • "And did she take your hat, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
    And did she take your hat, Charming Billy?
    "Oh yes, she took my hat,
    And she threw it at the cat."
    ("Billy Boy")
  • "Only much later did I come to understand that what I was witnessing as a child was really lost glory on its way out."
    (Avraham Burg, The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From its Ashes, trans. by Israel Amrani. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)
  • "I have seen mothers kissing for the last time the faces of their dead offspring; I have seen them looking down into the grave, as the earth fell with a dull sound upon their coffins, hiding them from their eyes forever; but never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured, and unbounded grief, as when Eliza was parted from her child."
    (Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave. Derby & Miller, 1853)
  • "Had I left the house one minute earlier I would have caught the streetcar as it was moving away."
    (Sheila Heti, Ticknor. Picador, 2005)

Difference Between Auxiliary Verbs and Main Verbs in English

  • "[One] difference between auxiliary [Aux] and modal verbs and main verbs is that Aux verbs appear in sentence-initial position in yes-no questions. This question formation rule is called subject-auxiliary inversion, or SAI, a process by which Aux verbs move over the subject NP ...
  • Minerva is singing the aria.
    Is Minerva singing the aria?
    Joachim has played an excellent game of chess.
    Has Joachim played an excellent game of chess?
    Joachim can play an excellent game of chess.
    Can Joachim play an excellent game of chess?
    Main verbs in English cannot undergo SAI. If we try to invert the main verb and the subject, we get a completely ungrammatical sentence in English (though the order is perfectly grammatical in some languages).
    Minerva sings the aria.
    *Sings Minerva the aria?" (Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone. Wadsworth, 2010)

Subject-Auxiliary Inversion With Negatives

  • "[T]here is obligatory SAI after negative and restrictive adverbs such as only, scarcely, hardly, never, little, less (cf. 44) and the like, as well as after negative direct object preposing (as in 45):
  • (44) Never before have fans been promised such a feast of speed. (LOB, rep.)
    (45) Not a soul did we see. [=Schmidt 1980: (62)] Since this is the only SAI category that does not rest on a linkage between clauses, neg-inversion is extended to apply to non-negative adverbs that optionally trigger SAI, i.e., to 'positive frequency, degree, and manner adverbs' (Green 1982: 125). Instances are often, well, or truly, as in (46):
    46) Truly are the tax gatherers an unbeloved people. (LOB, ed.)" (Heidrun Dorgeloh, Inversion in Modern English: Form and Function. John Benjamins, 1997)
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Subject-Auxiliary Inversion." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Subject-Auxiliary Inversion. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Subject-Auxiliary Inversion." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).